This story is by Nalini MacNab and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“There’s a fork in the road.”
“What did you say?” Alf was still looking around as if he didn’t believe what his eyes were telling him.
“It’s a crossroads, love. There are FOUR directions. One, we just came from,” Alf said, still distracted.
“Allll-f!” Sheila’s howl finally got his attention.
She jabbed her finger at a spot on the ground, four inches from the reinforced toe of her hiking boot.
“What? You mean an actual fork… how the hell? Someone must have…weird.”
“Well, I think so.” Sheila sounded relieved to finally have his attention. After miles of trekking through dense forest, the pair of them wandered onto a new trail that brought them…here. And the forest that surrounded them had disappeared.
Alf ran back up the road a bit, only to be swallowed up by the trees. The moment he made the decision to go forward again, to find Sheila and continue their journey, the trees disappeared. The crossroads appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Open countryside surrounded them as far as Alf could see. Had Sheila noticed anything? Was he hallucinating?
“LOOK!” The fork began to quiver, just the tiniest bit. Sheila had no interest in the now-vanished forest or the fact that they appeared to have landed themselves in a pickle.
Alf looked, and observed the utensil lying in the road. Only it wasn’t just lying there. It grabbed his attention, glowing. It was shape-shifting. This must be a mirage. That explained things.
Sheila reached for the fork, her hand extended to within a hair’s breadth of the shining, magical thing.
“Don’t touch it!”
“Why ever not?” Sheila’s curiosity overwhelmed her quivering nerves as she reached again. “What could happen?”
“Sheila, we are LOST! The whole landscape changed! Are you blind?”
“What does LOST have to do with THIS?!” She held the fork out in front of her, gasping as it began to vibrate in her hand.
“I told you not to touch it!” All Alf could hear was the shallow rasping of Sheila’s panicked breathing and the whisper of a wind he could not feel.
“LOOK!” Alf looked, and looked again. What he had thought was a rustic, four-tined dining implement, the kind found at any diner anywhere in the world, had changed before his eyes. As he stared, the changes continued. First, its general shape and number of tines changed from four, to three, then the size shifted to something more like a crab fork or one of those pickety fine dining things where you have to start at the outside of the array and work your way towards the plate.
“It keeps changing!”
“Oh, well spotted. Don’t you find something very odd about all this? Were we not just hiking through the forest, something we’ve done hundreds of times… then the compass went all wonky and we ended up on a trail that doesn’t exist on any of our maps, and now this road, this crossroads, to be exact. And, somehow, I think this thingie knows the answers.”
“Well, that about sums up the situation, except for… IT knows?” Alf lifted a more than quizzical brow.
“Oh don’t start!” Sheila was in full suss. He could almost see the smoke pouring out of her ears. “Watch what happens when it moves.”
“When it…Oh.” Sheila turned the implement, letting its handle roll between her fingers a bit. Its appearance changed completely. Out of each of its morphing tines beamed a ray of light. The light held images, each pointing somewhere.
Sheila began to rotate in place, letting the enchanted utensil turn as it would. Its vibrations became stronger. New images appeared as she aligned her stance with each corner of the intersecting roads.
The first corner felt oddly dark and disquieting. The images projected from the fork felt like deep quicksand, a leap into oblivion. Involuntarily, she moved back a step. Not that way!
She turned to what ought to have been East, if things hadn’t gone wonky. The fork projected four different sets of images. Four trajectories into…disaster!
There, at the end of the first projection, sat a dragon. An actual fire-breathing dragon, spewing bursts of flame in every direction. Backing up at light-speed, she switched to the second ray.
Cliff! The vertigo of being swept over the edge to be left hanging airborne by one hand made her stomach lurch. “Alf!” But she was alone, and in danger.
Sheila’s mind raced as her glove slipped on the sheer face. I’m no climber, she thought. Then she remembered. I have the fork in my other hand. This is an illusion. It can’t be real.
With that thought, she landed at the crossroads once again, moving into the images of the third projection. Water. She licked her parched lips, aching for the cooling solace of the mountain lake. Not a lake, the seashore. A tsunami, sucking the water away from her, built to a monstrous climax, shifted and raced toward her.
Rooted in fear, past thinking, she felt the fork turn in her hand. As the wave swept her away, everything around her dissolved into blinding light. Sensing the cessation of movement and realizing she could breathe, she opened her tightly closed eyes to find herself at the crossroads once more.
“If I let the projection play out, will it always bring me back here?” Sheila wondered out loud. “I’m talking to a fork now… brilliant.” Sheila looked down at her hand, noticing the fourth tine’s projected ray. Her legs shook, with dread or anticipation, she couldn’t tell. Take the next step…
Her feet moved of their own accord as she stepped into the trajectory of projected images. Seismic movement, rocks falling, the ground heaving beneath each step, she attempted to move forward. Then her outstretched hands met stone. She felt along the stone until, finally, she had traced the outlines of a small enclosure. Trapped underground! Buried alive!
Fighting down panic, Sheila explored the confines of her enclosure once more. Water seeped in from a crease on one side. That was good, she thought, her survival training kicking into gear. Then she noticed a faintly luminous quality off to her left.
Sheila inched closer. If there is light, there must be air, and potentially a way out. But I’m trapped. I have nothing to dig with, nothing to shore up a tunnel. Her thoughts stopped there. I don’t need to dig myself in deeper do I?
Sheila concentrated on the fork. “Show me,” she whispered, feeling like an idiot, hoping against hope.
Sitting cross-legged in the dirt, she looked up at Alf’s concerned face.
“Tired, love?” he asked, taking a seat beside her. “We hiked through that forest, didn’t we?” He pointed back the way they came.
“If we turned around and went back …” His sentence trailed off, as he realized he had done that already. Better get a move on and solve this thing.
Sheila, now uncharacteristically quiet, was turning the fork over and over in her hand, staring at it as it turned. Alf wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t in shock.
“Sheila.” He put an arm around her shoulders, not knowing whether to comfort her or shake her. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” she whispered to the tool in her hand.
“Sheila!” Alf’s insistence roused her. “I know you’re exhausted but we can’t just sit here. We have to do something! Let’s review the situation.”
“Well…You’re lost and I’ve found something.” Sheila sounded as peevish as she felt.
“Not to put too fine a point on it.” Alf was getting crankier by the minute. “Put that down and help me!”
“Alf….” Sheila paused. “Did you see anything odd just now? When I pointed the fork different ways the tines projected different images. Each one was a path leading somewhere. The images were overwhelming.”
Alf stared, concerned for Sheila’s wellbeing, and worried as the sun sank toward the horizon. “Was there a way forward?” Keep calm. Keep her talking.
“I don’t know how we got wherever this is and I don’t know where to go from here that wouldn’t be worse. Like, getting us both dead worse.”
“What haven’t we tried?”
“That way,” Sheila stood, with the fork in her hand as she faced in the one untried direction. The fork lay still and silent.
“What do we do next?” Indecision tortured Alf. He knew the choice to do nothing was no choice at all.
“Nothing,” Sheila whispered into the vast unscripted space before her. “No path at all.”
“Maybe change your tune?” The voice of the fork was filled with laughter.
Startled, Sheila dropped it, hearing the simultaneous shriek of tires and the tinkling of the fork, the moment it hit the ground.
The speeding pickup appeared out of nowhere, almost knocking them down.
“Need a lift? Magic works in any direction,” the driver winked. “What you’re after is the key.”
“That way,” Sheila pointed, into the unknown. What could happen?